First Christian Church
Florissant, Missouri June 8, 2008
As enjoyable as it may be to watch your favorite football team on television, it cannot match actually being there in the stadium. While the television commentators talk endlessly during the pre-game program, if you are in the stadium you get to watch and even participate in activities that inspire team loyalty, a sense of community and even patriotism. But then there are some features that are just plain carnival. Upon returning to the University of Nebraska many years after graduation I was surprised to see that a local lawyer had developed a large air gun that fired free hot dogs into the stadium. Pure carnival! But when the Big Red Marching Band took the field I still found myself singing the fight song. And later I stood with hand on heart as the Star Spangle Banner was played. But I was surprised to see that a falcon had been released (in lieu of an eagle, I suppose). It circled around the stadium, often swooping down toward us spectators, and finally coming to a rest on the arm of its handler (the falconer). For those of us who do not understand falconing there is always the question, “Why doesn’t the bird use this routine to bolt the circle and to head for the countryside and freedom?”
Having taken courses in literature as well as philosophy at the University, I remembered a poem by William Butler Yeats in which he talks he uses the circling falcon as a metaphor. The title of the poem is The Second Coming. He begins,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
The center that Yeats has in mind is that tenuous and often chaotic peace that European civilization clung to following World War I. And so he continues,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Written in the early 1920’s this poem has come to be seen as a grim prophecy of the chaos that culminated in World War II. The teacher in me makes me want to continue with an analysis of the entire poem, but for this occasion I am only interested in the metaphor it introduces, i.e., the center of a culture that holds it together, that gives stability and meaning for the people who live in that culture. For Yeats it was European culture if not the whole of Western culture. But tonight I am concerned about the center of this movement in which we share a common heritage. It has been called the Restoration Movement, the Reformation of the 19th Century, and, more recently, the Stone-Campbell Movement. Today, some 200 years beyond the early work of reformers like Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, we are inclined to talk about the “three streams of the Movement.” And if we looked within each of these three streams we would find additional sub-streams.
Thus in keeping with Yeats’ metaphor, we might legitimately ask, “Is there even a center around which we circle, we the falcons trying to hear the Falconer’s voice? Today we are seeing many encouraging efforts that would want to answer this question, “Yes.” But as early as 1964 Dean Walker, then president of Milligan College, brought together three prominent leaders, each of which came from one of the major streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement. They were Robert Burns, minister of the Peachtree Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Atlanta, Georgia, Carl Ketcherside from the Churches of Christ, and James Deforest Murch from Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. As I remember the forum was held on the Milligan campus during what was then called the School of Ministry.
James Deforest Murch had just published his history of the Restoration Movement entitled, Christians Only. And thus in his presentation he used a characterization of the three streams of the movement that he did in the book. There was a left, right and center. I think you get the idea: Disciples on the left, Church of Christ on the right, but his own stream, Christian Church/Church of Christ, in the center. Carl Ketcherside responded with feigned surprise. He said, “That’s strange. I always thought I was in the center.” It has been my experience that whenever the stereotypes of “left,” “right,” and “center” are used, you can easily be labeled both left and right, depending on who is doing the labeling. Rarely are you regarded in the center, except by good friends…and sometimes family.
There is a particular problem when we put ourselves in the center. The desire to get things right is certainly necessary and important. But the Christian life is an endless process of learning and growing. And there is always the temptation of pride or naivete in believing that we have completely discerned the whole truth and will of God. The English evangelist, David Watson, put this very well. He had come to the city of Birmingham for a rally at the Town Hall. Christians from many traditions came together that night. Living in a secular culture in which church attendance was something like 4% of the total population it was encouraging just to see the Town Hall filled with believers singing praise to God. When David began to speak, he said, “I know that when there is a gathering like this there is always the question of who is right and who is wrong. But just remember: when we bow before the Cross of Christ, we are all wrong.”
Thus to return to our original metaphor of the falcon and falconer, it is not a question of which of us is in the center. Rather it is the recognition that Christ is the center! We are the falcons that circle him, sometime disciplined, other times wayward, always being tempted by Satan to bolt from the circle and return to the wild.